Accurate Holiday wars update from Santa Monica!

Oh my! We may have a Nativity Lent miracle on our hands!

Trust me that I have read enough horrible "Christmas wars" stories in my journalistic life to recognize a decently reported one when I see it. I think the following Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing Santa Monica Nativity scene battles includes a few paragraphs of material -- from a qualified, informed source -- that make all the difference.

First, here is the sad, sad drama that is playing out once again:

Santa Monica may bar Nativity and other seasonal displays in public spaces, a federal judge tentatively ruled Monday.

In a case that has drawn national attention, Judge Audrey B. Collins of U.S. District Court in Los Angeles denied a church coalition's request that the court require the city to allow Nativity scenes to be displayed in Palisades Park this year, as it has for nearly 60 years.

"The atheists won on this," said William J. Becker Jr., an attorney for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition of 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Assn. Standing in front of TV news cameras outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, Becker predicted that the court on Dec. 3 would also grant the city's request that his group's lawsuit be dismissed.

That likely outcome, he said, marked "the erosion of 1st Amendment liberty for religious speech." He compared the city to Pontius Pilate, the judge at Jesus' trial, saying: "It's a shame about Christmas. Pontius Pilate was exactly the same kind of administrator."

Atheist groups praised the judge's ruling as an example of the upholding of the separation of church and state.

So far, so predictable.

The key, of course, is that officials of the state -- under "equal access" principles firmed up back in the 1990s by a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives -- have one of two options.

First, they can throw the public spaces open to snarky holiday chaos with all comers treated equally. This gives you the "Pastafarian religion" exhibit, complete with the "Flying Spaghetti Monster," sitting next to a traditional Christian Nativity scene. Then again, officials can elect to treat all faiths and interest groups equally by denying all requests for exhibitions of this kind. Legally, the state has to go to one extreme or the other, thus avoiding "viewpoint discrimination."

Lo and behold, the Times team found someone, and even quoted them, who (a) is not connected with either warring camp and (b) actually knows something about the laws that are in play.

Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum's Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, called Collins' decision "consistent with other rulings."

"It's all or nothing in these cases," he said. "If the government opens up and creates a limited forum, it can't practice viewpoint discrimination. But it can say, well, we're not going to have any. ... There has to be a level playing field in the public sphere."

So, for good and for ill, that is the state of church-state affairs at this point in time. You don't have to like it to note that this newspaper report managed to get the crucial legal facts into the story. All too often, journalists just let the Christians shout at the atheists and the atheists shout at the Christians and that's that.

This story gives us some of the shouting, of course, such as:

Since 1953, the coalition each December has erected a tableau of scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. ... To keep things fair and legal, the city held a lottery to parcel out slots. Atheists won 18 of 21 spaces. A Jewish group won another. The Nativity story that traditionally took up 14 displays was jammed into two.

A flap ensued. Vandals ripped down a banner the Freedom From Religion Foundation had hung at the park. The banner began: "At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail."

Last June, concerned that the lottery would become increasingly costly because of the rising tensions, the City Council voted to ban all private, unattended displays in city parks. The city has cited other reasons for the prohibition, including damage to the park's turf and some residents' statements that they would prefer unobstructed ocean views to seasonal displays.

Tragically, this is one of those cases in which the most calm, logical and, dare I say, reverent option is silence. Then again, loyal GetReligion readers already know where I stand on these matters. Last year I summed up my views in three simple thoughts. Here they are again, cleaned up a bit:

(1) I, personally, have never understood why so many religious believers think it is so important to have a creche on the lawn of their local government’s secular headquarters.

(2) Then again, I’ve never understood why some religious believers think it is a victory for Christians to go to court and argue that a Nativity Scene is not really religious and, thus, is a mere cultural symbol that belongs on tax-funded land. Since when is that a victory for traditional faith?

(3) In a perfect world, again in my opinion, every church in town would -- if their leaders choose to do so -- put up their own creches and the courthouse lawn would not be forced by choirs of lawyers to host warring armies of believers, unbelievers and other tense folks from various camps in between.

So once again, just to be clear, I am praising the Times for actually quoting an authoritative voice that knew enough about church-state law to realize that Santa Monica has not, in this case, banned Christmas. Instead, this story has noted that the government's leaders have chosen to cease being entangled in Holiday red tape and, well, spaghetti.

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